NEW JERSEY – In January 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy released New Jersey’s Energy Master Plan which lays out guidelines for 100 percent of the state’s energy to come from carbon-free renewable sources by 2050 (50 percent by 2030), which includes developing 7,500 megawatts of offshore wind energy generation by 2035.
And when U.S. President Joseph R. Biden took office in January, one of his first actions addressed the rising climate crisis. The White House’s commitment to the environment and a clean-energy economy included expanded opportunities for off-shore wind farms, which will not only benefit the environment, but also “strengthen the domestic supply chain, and create good-paying, union jobs,” according to a March 29 federal fact sheet.
If wind farms can produce clean energy, supplied to millions of customers in coastal metropolitan areas, and also provide immediate and long-lasting jobs, why are some environmental groups and activists asking the government to pump the brakes on legislation?
Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, an environmental advocacy group based in Long Branch, said wind farm development is “very complicated.” The federal government has jurisdiction over where to place wind farms, a task handled by the Bureau of Ocean Management. But the states have the right to award the actual projects, done in New Jersey through the Board of Public Utilities.
In South Jersey, off Atlantic and Cape May counties, over 400,000 acres have been committed by BOEM to wind farms, including the Ocean Wind project, a partnership between Danish company Ørsted and PSE&G. That project is expected to go live by the end of 2024 and provide energy for half a million homes. It places 99 turbines capable of generating 1,100 megawatts of power approximately 15 miles off the coast of Atlantic City.
The Empire Wind project in the New York Bight – by Equinor, a Norwegian company, and BP – covers 80,000 acres and could power more than a million homes when finished. While technically off the coast of Long Island and set to generate power for New Yorkers, the turbbines will essentially be located off the coast of Central New Jersey.
“Energy decisions are made by the state,” Zipf explained and said the process for wind farm development is “identical to offshore drilling leasing process.”
She noted that, while wind farms and oil drilling are two very different industries, the process is “not very environmentally protective.”
“The flaws in the process remain the same,” Zipf said, which is why COA and others would like to see states take a more measured approached.
But the state is plowing ahead. On June 30, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities announced two new wind farm projects during a special meeting: Atlantic Shores (a 50/50 partnership between Shell New Energies US LLC and EDF Renewables North America), anticipated for 2027, is a 1,510-megawatt facility and Ørsted’s Ocean Wind II will be capable of producing 1,148 megawatts when it goes into service in 2028.
“With the actions we take today, this board is sending a very clear message,” said BPU commissioner Bob Gordon during the special meeting. “New Jersey, under the leadership Gov. Murphy is making a long-term commitment to offshore wind. While our prime motivation is to address climate change and protect a state more vulnerable than most, let there be no mistake, the Murphy administration wants New Jersey to become the hub of the U.S offshore wind industry.
“We want to build a whole new industry and the jobs and the economic opportunity that come with it,” Gordon said.
Zipf wants to make it clear that COA is not opposed to offshore wind development. “We need to develop renewable energy sources… We just want to do so responsibly,” she said, something she feels might not be happening.
Ørsted plans to use General Electric’s Haliade-X offshore turbines for its Ocean Wind projects. These turbines are 248 meters tall and feature a 220-meter rotor with a 107-meter blade, according to GE. For comparison, the Seattle Space Needle is 184 meters tall. So, as COA advocacy campaign manager Kari Martin, pointed out, “The GE turbine is taller and also the rotor is wider than the height of the Space Needle.”
“We have listened to a number of panels now with experts in the marine ecology field” about the potential impacts of wind farms to marine life, said Zipf.
“The physical impacts to the chemistry – the water, the currents, the food – sort of the physical oceanography – the fish, the birds, the bats, the mammals – and across the board the scientists have no idea what the impacts are going to be,” Zipf said.
She is hoping the environmental impact study from the initial Ocean Winds project can provide some insight.
Jim Hutchinson Jr., managing editor of The Fisherman Magazine, feels some of that insight already exists, it’s just a matter of interpreting the data. In 2018, he said he began looking into research from Danish wind farms, pioneers in the industry. One of the studies he found said commercial fishermen in Denmark were reporting a decrease in the flounder population. “They weren’t having the catches around the wind farms as they did before,” Hutchinson said. Some officials blamed the decrease on overfishing.
But Hutchinson said research points to flounder being one of the few species that shows “avoidance characteristics” around the charged electromagnetic cables that run from the turbines to the shore. He said that was very concerning “because summer flounder – or fluke at the Jersey Shore – is pretty much the straw that stirs the drink.”
“It is our most important recreational species in New Jersey,” Hutchinson said, “and I’m sure the commercial guys would say much the same thing.”
Fluke migrate in summer toward the shore; in the winter they hang out in the canyons 50 to 60 miles off shore. “If these summer flounder show avoidance characteristics around electromagnetic fields, then what’s going to happen when you’ve created 5, 6, 700 wind mills in a stretch of wind farms that run north to south at the Jersey Shore?” Hutchinson wonders if this will create a barrier to migration.
While he isn’t saying fluke definitely won’t cross this electromagnetic “barrier,” Hutchinson does question what happens if the wind farms affect the migration patterns of the fluke by even as little as 20 percent.
“It’s going to be incredibly impactful,” he said.
The effect on fluke is a major concern for Hutchinson, but so are other potential issues. At 12-20 miles into the ocean, advocates argue you won’t be able to see the wind farms from shore. But he said with enough turbines grouped together, this isn’t necessarily true. If the turbines are lit, which they most likely will be, at night it could be like looking out on a city, he said.
“It’s been documented by the U.S. Coast Guard that having all of these clusters (of turbines) will affect radar transmission,” he said. Hutchinson notes that, during the summer, recreational fishermen from Highlands, Shark River and Manasquan down to Cape May leave the marina when it’s still dark out to get to the canyons 50 miles from shore. “They’re going to be crisscrossing through these things and then they’re going to have to come through at dark, they’re going to come through in fog. You’re going to have to have radar on your vessel in order to navigate through these things in the dark and in the fog. But the fact of the matter is the Coast Guard recognizes that these things will also jam radar. So that’s going to cause a concern.”
Hutchinson said he has asked a lot of questions over the past few years and been “dismissed” but noted that now officials in shore towns are finally starting to question the impact the wind farms will have on land. As local administrations began balking at the idea of having “giant cables” running through their municipalities, he said, the state fast-tracked legislation that would make it nearly impossible for them to refuse it. Onshore transmission lines are needed to get the energy generated by the wind farms to customers.
Two recent bills, Hutchinson and others feel, have been rushed through the legislative process. Senate bill 3926, introduced June 10, and Assembly bill 5894, introduced June 14, both allow the BPU to use eminent domain, if necessary, for wind project companies to build transmission lines on land.
“We support renewable energy projects such as off-shore wind projects to reach our 2050 clean energy goals, but these two bills grant power projects eminent domain that may not be in the public interest,” said Kin Gee, president of consumer advocacy group CHARGE – Consumers Helping Affect Regulation of Gas & Electric. He said “an offshore wind project may have merits and be a qualified project,” but his concern is if it comes about at the expense of public discourse.
“The public should provide input,” Gee said. “But right now you don’t even have the opportunity to do that.”
Gee points out that it may not be in the public interest to have each project build its own transmission lines, but rather suggests having them link to a single onshore line.
“I’m shocked,” said Hutchinson about the bills. “We can’t get Trenton to act on anything of substance in this state for years at a time, yet they’re able to fast track a bill in a matter of weeks that takes away the authority of local municipalities to decide what’s good for themselves.”
As Zipf pointed out, everyone wants to combat climate change and do so responsibly.
“We’ve had centuries of doing it the other way, where we just plow over the environment and then say, ‘Ooh, that was a bad idea,’ ” she said.
The ocean “provides us endless gifts and bounty,” Zipf said, “but she’s already doing so much and has done so much to minimize and buffer the impacts of climate change. The ocean’s absorbed 90 percent of the heat that’s been generated since 1950 and 25 percent of the CO2.
“So, you know, a healthy ocean is in our interest to help combat climate change.”
This article originally appeared in the July 8 – 14, 2021, print edition of The Two River Times.